Gnomic Present (Verbs)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Heraclitus quote
An example of a gnomic utterance. Hocus Focus Studio/Getty Images

In English grammar, the gnomic present is a verb in the present tense used to express a general truth without reference to time. Also called gnomic aspect and generic aspect. Other words for gnome include maxim, proverb, and aphorism.

In her study of Elizabeth Cary (2009), Karen Raber points out the difference between the gnomic present and the historical present: "T]he gnomic present reassures the reader that the history does not depart from received wisdom while the historic present suggests to the listener that its significance is relevant to the moment in which the story is told." 

See examples and observations below. Also see:

From the Greek, "thought, judgment"

Examples and Observations

  • A fool and his money are soon parted.
  • A penny saved is a penny earned.
  • A rising tide lifts all boats.
  • A rolling stone gathers no moss.
  • The secret of happiness is not to do what you like to do, but to learn to like what you have to do.
  • The earth rotates on its axis every 24 hours and revolves around the sun once every year.
  • "A mob is usually a creature of very mysterious existence, particularly in a large city. Where it comes from, or whither it goes, few men can tell. Assembling and dispersing with equal suddenness, it is as difficult to follow to its various sources as the sea itself."
    (Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, 1841)
  • Out of Time
    "Another use that 'Present Tenses' sometimes have is . . . in timeless or generic statements, such as Elephants have trunks. Such statements are true in the past, present, and future—as long as elephants exist. The usual term for this meaning is gnomic present.
    gnomic: the situation described in the proposition is generic; the predicate has held, holds, and will hold for the class of entities named by the subject."
    (Joan Bybee, Revere Perkins, and William Pagliuca, The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect, and Modality in the Languages of the World. University of Chicago Press, 1994)
  • General Truth
    "Economic style appeals in various ways to an ethos worthy of belief. For example, a test claiming authority uses the 'gnomic present,' as in the sentence you are reading now, or in the Bible, or repeatedly in the historian David Landes's well-known book on modern economic growth, The Unbound Prometheus (1969). Thus, in one paragraph on p. 562, 'large-scale, mechanized manufacture requires not only machines and buildings . . . but . . . social capital. . . . These are costly, because the investment required is lumpy. . . . The return on such investment is often long deferred.' Only the last sentences of the paragraph connect the rest to the narrative past: 'the burden has tended to grow.'

    "The advantage of the gnomic present is its claim to the authority of General Truth, which is another of its names in grammar. . . .

    "The disadvantage is that it sidesteps whether it is asserting an historical fact . . . or a general truth . . ., or perhaps merely a tautology."
    (Deirdre N. McCloskey, The Rhetoric of Economics, 2nd ed. University of Wisconsin Press, 1998)
  • Rhetorical Effects of the Gnomic Present
    "What are the advantages of the use of the gnomic present? . . . Partly, it has to do with ethos: both [the] Bible and folklore wisdom favor the gnomic present. Partly, it is a matter of [a] special kind of logos. There is no base on which to contest a statement in gnomic present. Any sentence situated in real time and place can be contested as to its validity: there are other witnesses, or at least there are counter-examples from different places and times. Not so with the gnomic present, which is situated no-place in no-time. . . ."
    (H. Tsoukas and C. Knudsen, The Oxford Handbook of Organization Theory. Oxford University Press, 2003)
  • The Lighter Side of the Gnomic Present
    "Scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock, rock crushes lizard, lizard poisons Spock, Spock smashes scissors, scissors decapitates lizard, lizard eats paper, paper disproves Spock, Spock vaporizes rock, and as it always has, rock crushes scissors."
    (Sheldon Cooper in "The Lizard-Spock Expansion." The Big Bang Theory, 2008)